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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 22 June 2021 [Draft]

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Coronavirus (Extension and Expiry) (Scotland) Bill, Business Motion, Presiding Officer’s Statement, Topical Question Time, Covid-19, Curriculum for Excellence, Coronavirus (Extension and Expiry) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Coronavirus (Extension and Expiry) (Scotland) Bill: Financial Resolution, Business Motion, Decision Time, MND Scotland (40th Anniversary)


Contents


Topical Question Time


Covid-19 (Travel Ban)

1. Graham Simpson (Central Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government on what basis it has introduced a ban on non-essential travel between Scotland and Manchester and Salford. (S6T-00090)

The Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Covid Recovery (John Swinney)

The common travel area restrictions were introduced in November 2020. Decisions on which areas are subject to the restrictions are made on the basis of incidence and test positivity rates; other epidemiological factors such as the number of hospitalisations, intensive care admissions and deaths; and the presence of variants of concern.

Restrictions on travel to and from Blackburn with Darwen and Bolton, in north-west England, and Bedford, in the east of England, were introduced on 24 May. We removed the Bedford restrictions, as well as restrictions on travel to and from the Republic of Ireland, on Friday 18 June because we judged that the relative risk of travel to and from those areas had reduced.

Additional restrictions were introduced on travel to and from Manchester and Salford from 21 June, because we judged that the risk had increased. Those additions were all linked to severely elevated case rates associated with the delta variant. All the recent changes were notified to Parliament in a written statement through a Government-initiated question and were announced to the public in the First Minister’s media briefing, with an accompanying press notice and guidance being placed on the Scottish Government website.

Graham Simpson

I notice that the cabinet secretary gave no figures whatsoever in his answer, so the public will be quite bemused by it.

The legislation is completely incoherent. It says that a person has to leave Scotland with the “intention” of going to Manchester in order to be in breach of the law. I do not know how anyone could prove that. I could set off from my home in East Kilbride, go down to visit my mother in Carlisle, suddenly decide to pop down to see a mate in Manchester and not be in breach of the law. How can it possibly be enforced? Will we have police at the border asking people where they are going? Of course we will not. The law is unworkable and unenforceable.

The Presiding Officer (Alison Johnstone)

Will you ask a question, please?

Graham Simpson

How does the cabinet secretary answer the fair point that infection rates in parts of Greater Manchester, such as Bolton, are lower than those in Dundee? Bolton has a Covid rate of 269 cases per 100,000. How is that consistent or fair?

John Swinney

Bolton was added on 24 May. That was announced to Parliament through a Government-initiated question in exactly the same way that the announcement was made about Manchester and Salford.

I completely accept and respect what the Presiding Officer has said today, and the Government will reflect carefully on the points that she has made. We felt that we were notifying Parliament properly because we had used the mechanism before for the Bolton example. If that mechanism is no longer judged to be appropriate, the Government will of course reflect on that, but we were simply using the same mechanism that we used back in May when we announced the decision on Bolton.

The Government will take away what the Presiding Officer has said, because we respect Parliament. We notified Parliament on Thursday afternoon. If members of the Conservative Party could not be bothered to look at their emails at 2.39 on Thursday afternoon then, as the saying goes, you can take a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink.

When Bolton was added, case rates were at 283 per 100,000 people, which was nearly three times the rate in Glasgow at that moment on 24 May. That was the reason: the variation in elevated case rates. Mr Simpson asked me for more data. Manchester was sitting at 348 cases per 100,000, and Salford at 337. Those figures were in excess of any case rates in Scotland and well above the Scottish average.

We took those decisions to try to minimise the contact that we know enables the spread of the virus. That is what all the restrictions have been about and that was the basis of our decision: to protect people in Scotland from the spread of the virus.

Graham Simpson

If the cabinet secretary thinks that an email shows respect to this Parliament, he is looking at it in completely the wrong way, because it does not.

The fact is that case rates in Manchester were very similar to those in Dundee. He has not addressed that point.

I move on to another point. Because of the First Minister’s edict, some people have lost hundreds of pounds, but it is not just individuals who have lost out; the travel sector, which has been hollowed out, is also the loser here. Will the Scottish Government compensate individuals and businesses who have lost money because of the decision?

John Swinney

The Government answered a Government-initiated question on Thursday. I have already gone through the details. Nobody raised an issue about our using a Government-initiated question to set out the restrictions for Bolton, Bedford and other places on 24 May. If the view now is that that is not an acceptable way, the Government will of course reflect on that and address any issues that Parliament wishes to raise.

Mr Simpson raised the issue of Manchester and Salford again. On the case numbers in that area, 337 was the lowest number, which can be compared with the seven-day incidence rate in Scotland at that time. The case numbers and the epidemiological advice are what drives these decisions.

In relation to the question of any compensation, the Government does not believe that that would be appropriate. Travel to the north-west of England was previously prohibited last year, before the local levels regulations were introduced, and no compensation was offered. We are all responsible for putting in place in our respective parts of the United Kingdom the financial support arrangements for business, which is exactly what the Government will continue to do here in Scotland.

The Presiding Officer

There is a great deal of interest in the subject. I would be grateful for short questions and succinct responses.

Jackie Baillie (Dumbarton) (Lab)

The cabinet secretary will be aware that the mayor of Manchester is seeking compensation for those people who had booked holidays in Scotland that have now been cancelled as a result of the Government’s decision. The tourism industry has had a really difficult time, and losing bookings will come as a bitter blow, whether it is from Manchester or anywhere else. Will the cabinet secretary commit to putting in place an additional support scheme so that tourism businesses do not have to bear the brunt of decisions about travel bans?

John Swinney

As Jackie Baillie knows, the Government continues to keep business support under review. The First Minister will make a statement in a few moments’ time that will set out some further developments in relation to the wider context and the strategic framework for the handling of the coronavirus. Some of the issues that Jackie Baillie raises will be addressed in the First Minister’s statement, so I will not pre-empt that.

However, the Government has put in place a range of different supports for tourism businesses, as with many other businesses, to take people through these difficult times. We will continue to ensure that we address any issues that are raised by individual sectors to our greatest ability with the financial scope that we have at our disposal.

Brian Whittle (South Scotland) (Con)

Mr Swinney was heard in the media saying that decisions by the Scottish Government are now based on vaccination levels and hospitalisation levels, which is contrary to what Nicola Sturgeon suggested, with the ban on travel to Manchester—[Inaudible.]—100,000. Is the Scottish Government following the science? What is it? Or is the Scottish Government now just making it up, as many of us think?

The Presiding Officer

I am not sure to what extent the cabinet secretary was able to understand that question.

John Swinney

All that I would say in answer to Mr Whittle’s question is that the Government has set out clearly over many weeks and months the focus that we have had on applying restrictions where it is appropriate, based on the development of the pandemic. Increasingly, in the past few weeks, we have begun to focus, as vaccination rates have increased, on the relative balance between case numbers, levels of hospitalisation, levels of intensive care unit presence and admittance, and the level of cases around the country. As we see the effect of the vaccination programme, that will continue to be the basis on which we make our decisions. That has informed the decision making that the Government has undertaken in this particular case as well.

Douglas Ross (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

The Deputy First Minister has used a number of times the example of 24 May, saying that a Government-initiated question was used and no issues were raised then. Does he know and understand that 24 May was a Monday and therefore not a parliamentary sitting day, and that last Thursday was a sitting day, when ministers such as he could have announced it to Parliament and been questioned by MSPs?

John Swinney

All that I would say to Mr Ross is that I hear what he has said. The Presiding Officer has made her remarks. We will, of course, reflect very carefully on the points that she has raised. Government-initiated questions are frequently lodged on sitting days on many issues in relation to Covid.

We will reflect on what the Presiding Officer has said in order to make sure that we properly advise Parliament of changes. However, I say to Mr Ross again that Government-initiated questions are an acceptable means—accepted by the Presiding Officer—of the Government notifying Parliament of particular developments. We have followed that route, but we will of course reflect on the points that the Presiding Officer has raised this afternoon.


Female Prisoners (Remand)

2. Pauline McNeill (Glasgow) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to reduce the number of female prisoners on remand, following reports that one in four women in custody are awaiting trial. (S6T-00101)

The Minister for Community Safety (Ash Denham)

Decisions on bail, remand and sentence in individual cases are, of course, a matter for the independent courts, based on the circumstances that are before them. Nevertheless, the Scottish Government has made it clear that we believe that the number on remand in our prisons, especially the number of women, is too high. I recognise that an ambition to reduce the use of remand is shared by other parties, and I welcome their support and ideas.

The single biggest factor in the increase in the proportion of prisoners held on remand is the backlog of cases created by the pandemic. We are committed to helping the justice services recover. That includes providing an additional £50 million in this financial year, so that cases involving all accused persons, including those on remand, can be progressed and justice can be carried out in each case.

A number of actions are under way to help reduce the use of remand, and, at the end of last year, the Government introduced regulations to Parliament as the first step in introducing electronically monitored bail. Once all our partners have confirmed that they are operationally ready, the measure will provide the judiciary with another tool to utilise when considering bail and remand.

We also plan to explore how the overarching legal framework in which decisions about remand are made could be adjusted. In line with the findings of the report of the commission on women offenders by the former Lord Advocate, Dame Elish Angiolini, we recognise the disruption that periods of remand cause individuals, their families and their communities. That is why we are continuing to strengthen the provision of credible alternatives—

The Presiding Officer

Thank you.

Ash Denham

—to remand, supported by an investment of £550,000 in bail supervision each year. That is in addition to the £107 million that is invested in community justice services annually, which includes a ring-fenced allocation of £1.5 million for bail support for women.

Finally, as part of my new remit, I welcome the opportunity to work across parties and with key stakeholders and others representing women in the justice system to identify further actions that can help ensure that remand is used only when necessary to protect public safety and where no appropriate alternative is available.

The Presiding Officer

We will require shorter responses, as we have a great deal of business to get through this afternoon.

Pauline McNeill

I thank the minister for that lengthy response. Time spent in prison can have a catastrophic effect on women’s lives, causing them to lose their home, custody of their children and their job. Amnesty International reminds us that the detention of individuals who are awaiting trial is a matter of special concern because they have yet to be found guilty of any offence and are therefore innocent in the eyes of the law. However, worryingly, Scottish prisons have a greater proportion of women on remand than prisons in the rest of the United Kingdom. Of those women on remand, three quarters will not get a custodial sentence. I hope that the minister agrees that something is not right.

The minister mentioned that the Government is about to adopt the Angiolini report, but the issue was known about nine years ago and there was a proposition that the provision of bail supervision should be consistently available across Scotland. Why has it taken nine years to bring that forward?

Ash Denham

Our work on issues across this area has been on-going. I say to the member, and to others in the chamber, that we absolutely recognise how destructive periods of remand are to individuals, families and communities. Remand should be used only when it is absolutely necessary to protect public safety and where no appropriate alternative exists.

I am determined to make progress, but I hope that the member will accept that we have made some progress on the issue and on the wider piece for women and justice. For instance, I point to our work on the presumption against short sentences, on the new women’s prison estate and on electronically monitored bail, and our investment in community justice. All those things are part of a picture, or a step forward. I will consider what more we can do, and I invite the member to work with me on that.

The member requested an update on bail supervision. We have invested in bail supervision services, which is an important alternative to remand. Obviously, those services are run by local authority justice social work services. Since April 2019, additional funding of £550,000 has been provided to increase capacity for bail supervision. The latest statistics show encouraging evidence of the impact, with the highest level of use of bail supervision in seven years. In 2019-20, a total of 470 bail supervision cases were commenced, which was a 40 per cent increase on 2018-19.

Pauline McNeill

It is difficult at topical questions if members ask about something and get answers about a whole policy that they did not ask about. I am asking about remand. At the end of April, close to one in four prisoners in Scotland were on remand, and nearly 42.6 per cent of young people aged between 16 and 20 who were in prison were on remand. Of people held on remand, 57 per cent do not go on to receive a prison sentence—either they are found not guilty or they receive a community sentence. I am not confident that the Scottish Government really accepts the importance of the issue and the human rights considerations.

What is the Scottish Government’s approach to the issue in terms of human rights? In January last year, the Scottish Government commissioned research into the reasons behind decisions on bail and remand, with the aim of trying to reduce the number of people on remand, but that research was put on hold. I acknowledge that that was due to the pandemic, but when will that research be recommenced?

Ash Denham

There were a number of points in that question. I am not sure that I will be able to cover them all in my reply, but I will follow up with the member if I miss any out.

We absolutely take the issue seriously, but I remind the member that decisions on bail are made by the independent courts, taking account of all the circumstances of the case and according to the statutory framework, which explicitly sets out provisions on public safety and substantial risks of a person committing further offences. In Scots law, there is generally a presumption in favour of bail, and that is a requirement of the European convention on human rights.

I was setting out for the member the wider pieces of work that we have to do to invest in alternatives to remand. We are taking forward work on electronically monitored bail, which will be implemented shortly. We are also investing in bail supervision, with money specifically ring fenced to support women in that, and there is the additional funding that we have put into community justice.


European Union Settlement Scheme

3. Emma Roddick (Highlands and Islands) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with the Home Office regarding the reported backlog in processing applications for the European Union settlement scheme. (S6T-00104)

The Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, External Affairs and Culture (Angus Robertson)

It is unacceptable that, with eight days to go to the EU settlement scheme deadline, there is now a backlog of more than 300,000 unresolved cases. The Scottish Government has consistently been clear that the deadline should be extended. On 16 June, the Minister for Culture, Europe and International Development wrote to Lord Frost requesting a discussion on the issue at EU exit committee meetings. We have yet to receive a response. I also requested an extension when I met the United Kingdom Minister for Immigration Compliance and Justice. We will continue to do everything that we can to support EU citizens, including seeking an extension.

Emma Roddick

The settled status deadline poses huge risks to EU nationals, who have contributed so much to our society. It would simply be unacceptable for people to lose their rights overnight. It is of course wrong that EU nationals who live here are being forced by the UK Government to apply to stay in Scotland but, given that they have to do so, what steps is the Scottish Government taking to encourage all EU nationals to apply before the deadline?

Angus Robertson

I completely agree that the upcoming deadline poses significant unfair risks to EU nationals. We have continually requested at the very least an extension to the EUSS deadline. Let me be clear that any refusal to extend that deadline is a choice by the UK Government.

The Scottish Government is supporting EU citizens through our stay in Scotland campaign, through which we have spent more than £1 million on helping people to apply to the EUSS scheme, including through media campaigns across radio, digital and social media platforms, and toolkits that provide information and signposting to be made available to EU citizens. The funding has also been used to offer advice and support through Citizens Advice Scotland, the Citizens Rights Project and JustRight Scotland guidance on the rights of EU citizens.

Emma Roddick

Many key sectors in Scotland—in particular, here in the Highlands—such as hospitality and farming, are already struggling to recruit employees as a result of Brexit. There could not be a worse time to risk compounding that problem if people lose their right to work as a result of the UK Government’s deadline. Is the cabinet secretary concerned that this reckless Tory policy could risk damaging Scotland’s recovery from the pandemic?

Angus Robertson

Yes, I am very concerned that the policy will harm key sectors across Scotland. It is my view and that of the Scottish Government that EU citizens who live in the UK should not need to apply to retain the rights that they have had to live, work and study in Scotland. The EU settlement scheme should be replaced with a declarative scheme that automatically allows EU citizens to retain their rights. At the very least, the UK Government should extend the deadline for applying to the EU settlement scheme.

The Presiding Officer

That concludes topical question time. I regret that I have been unable to take more supplementaries.

As we progress through this afternoon’s business, I ask colleagues to remain courteous to other members at all times and to keep questions and responses succinct.